What's the Use of Suffering?
No issue raises more troubling questions for people of faith than the reality of human suffering. Nobody wants to suffer, but sooner or later everyone does. In fact, Jesus named suffering as a non-negotiable part of what it would mean for him to fulfill God's purpose of his life and for us to become his disciples. (Mark 8:31-38)
The purpose of the Gospel is not to avoid suffering, but to redeem it. What matters is not whether we suffer, but what we do with suffering. Jesus' disciples are not promised escape from suffering, but grace within it. The Christian life is not merely about facing up to our own suffering, but about choosing to enter into the suffering of others in the love of God. Nothing Jesus said runs more deeply against the grain of our self-absorbed, pleasure-seeking, death-denying culture than his challenge, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." (Mark 8:34)
The Witness of Suffering
|Rev. Jim Harnish|
I never cease to be moved from the sermon William Sloane Coffin preached after his 24-year-old son, Alex, died in a car accident in Boston. The most memorable passage is where Coffin said:
"For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels ... My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex died; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break."
I share both Coffin's frustration with the simplistic "God-had-a-reason-for-this" theology that is so pervasive in our culture and his consolation in the love of a God who comes to suffer with us, all the way to the cross.
At the same time, I continue to be challenged by the words and witness of my friend, Peter Storey, who has preached here several times across the years. You'll find his book, "With God in the Crucible," in our bookstore or you can order it here.
Through his experience during the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, Storey learned that "there is power in faithful suffering ... If you want to know whether God is alive, you must go, not to where all is well, but into places of brokenness and suffering." (p. 80) There are ways in which God's love can never be made real in and through us until we begin to grasp something of what Paul meant when he said, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death." (Philippians 3:10)
An Odd Way to Find Joy
Here's the surprise. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews said that it was "for the sake of the joy that was set before him" that Jesus "endured the cross." (Hebrews 12:2) The mystery of God's grace is that the way to joy is also the way that leads through shared suffering. In contrast to ephemeral, bargain store happiness, real joy comes out of the same place in the human heart as tears. The people who know how to laugh are usually people who also know how to cry.
Rev. Dr. Jim Harnish is senior pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist Church.